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Better Safe Than Sorry: Am I Getting Addicted to Painkillers?

Better Safe Than Sorry: Am I Getting Addicted to Painkillers?

We all have that pain that just won’t go away. Maybe it’s from an injury that continues to get worse, or from a recent surgery causing residual pain. Sometimes, after a surgery or procedure, our doctors prescribe medications to help with the pain. Maybe we have chronic pain issues. Dentists are often prescribing these painkillers too. And we take them, believing that we would stop, and could stop, once we fully healed. It made sense to take prescription opioids. We were in pain. Yet somewhere along the way, we become addicted to painkillers, because the pain never stops. It’s more common than you may think.

The Painful Truth about Painkillers

Morphine and codeine are natural pain killers. They work great, but have properties that make them highly addictive.

Pharmaceutical companies and street drug dealers began to make synthetic drugs similar to morphine and codeine with the same properties, making them just as addictive. Examples of these are oxycodone, fentanyl, hydrocodone, methadone, heroin, and tramadol — all just as addictive, if not more, than their “natural” origins, morphine and codeine. Long-term use of any of these natural or synthetic drugs increases the risk of addiction.

Many people begin to abuse painkillers with a prescription, not from a willful decision, but as a typical repercussion from use.

Why Can’t I Stop?

In addition to the physical symptoms that make it hard for a person to stop use of painkillers, there are emotional symptoms. A person who is already under stress or experiencing mood symptoms may take a painkiller as prescribed for another condition, only to find how happy it makes them feel. The individual may see this as a bonus. It relieves pain, elevates mood, eases stress, and helps with relaxation.

Use of prescription pain pills, for all these reasons, can quickly create a dangerous habit. Over time, a person needs more in dosage and frequency to achieve the desired effect. Even worse, attempting to stop use generates a slew of painful side effects and symptoms.

If you or someone you care about is addicted to painkillers, there is also an increased risk of overdosing on the medication.

“On average, 130 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose.”
                                                                         Center for Disease Control (CDC)

The CDC also found that from 1999 to 2017, over 700,000 individuals suffered from deadly drug overdoses. This is startling, especially since anyone can become addicted to painkillers.

For those who haven’t experienced the lure of prescription painkillers, it’s hard to understand the anguish they bring. The fact remains that opiate-based painkillers are extremely addictive making it difficult to come off them without professional treatment. Although in many instances, painkillers were meant as a short-term fix for pain. Chronic pain in the United States is a common problem that many people live with for a long time. As a society, we are always looking for pain relief and opioids appear to help.

Prescription Painkillers Are Liars

There is a simple reason why opioid painkillers feel so good. Once they enter into the bloodstream, opioids release dopamine, a feel-good hormone that induces feelings of pleasure and happiness. A neurotransmitter, dopamine signals messages to the brain releasing a sense of euphoria. But the body has its own set of natural opioids that respond to opioid receptors in the brain. When we have pain, they go to work to help minimize our discomfort.

Once the body and the brain are exposed to synthetic opioids, such as prescription pain pills, the addition of these chemical compounds circumvents what the body and brain already do, confusing and overloading the process, though on an intellectual and cognitive level, we don’t realize this is happening.  Our body receives these feelings of ease, calm, and serenity while blocking pain. Isn’t that the desired effect from pain medications?

The False Sense of Pain-Free

Through continued use, opioids overstimulate different systems in the brain that are connected to different parts of the body. Ultimately, there is an interruption of the normal functioning of chemicals in the brain. The result is that the body and brain expect to be in a state of painlessness and rely on the prescription painkillers to accomplish this task. As such, it requires an increase in the amount of medication taken, whether in dosage strength, frequency of use, or both.

Unfortunately, after just a short amount of time in using prescription opioids, our bodies don’t know how to respond to pain and work normally anymore. A chemical dependency develops, and explains why people continue to take painkillers long after the pain goes away.

By the time people realize they don’t need these painkillers for pain anymore, it’s too late. And who wants to feel all of those terrible feelings (physical, emotional, behavioral) by coming off of them that can be just as bad, or worse, than the original pain experienced?

We don’t start out by going to the doctor or dentist and consider this risk, “Maybe, I will become addicted…” Most of us believe that we will go in, get that injury fixed, go through a surgery or procedure and accept a few days of pain.

Then, when we find that the pain still remains, we continue our prescriptions. This is how addiction to prescription painkillers happens.

Signs You May Be Addicted to Painkillers

It’s important to remember that addiction does not discriminate. Everyone has the potential to become addicted to painkillers.

There are many signs of painkiller addiction that you can watch for. If you or a loved one is about to have a medical procedure, or have just been released from the hospital, surgicenter, or doctor’s care, with a prescription to a painkiller, keep these signs in mind.

Signs You May Be Addicted to Painkillers

Painkiller Addiction Symptoms

  • Taking higher doses than prescribed
  • Feeling sick when you don’t take them
  • Experiencing physical withdrawal symptoms, including aches, pains, gastrointestinal issues, headaches, flu-like symptoms, etc.
  • Finding you need more of the medication to seek the same pain-relief or euphoria
  • Obsessing about them, including how you will get them again if you run out
  • Stealing them from others
  • Taking it for the euphoric feeling or to deliberately get high
  • Losing control of how and when you take them
  • Seeking more than one doctor to get your prescriptions (doctor shopping)
  • Experiencing psychological, mood, and behavioral changes that are out of character for your personality (extreme anger, sadness, agitation, etc.)
  • Becoming defensive when someone brings up a concern with your use of painkillers

The above signs sum up the hallmarks of addiction. There are other indicators of addiction, noted below, that reveal the need for seeking help immediately.

  1. Drug tolerance, needs more of the drug
  2. Drug dependence; withdrawal symptoms appear
    1. between use
    2. when trying to stop use
  3. Drug addiction; regular, ongoing use, loss of control, even when knowing the risks and experiencing adverse medical, personal, financial, and career-related consequences

Addiction Can Come with Co-Occurring Mental Illness

Certain types and personalities of people can predispose them to developing addiction. People who have previously had a problem with addiction or have a mental illness should be very careful when taking prescription opioids.

If someone has already recovered from a substance abuse disorder, it is important to be informed about the risks in taking prescription medications. Be sure to share past addictions with your health practitioners, especially when pain is involved. Those who have had alcohol or drug addictions in the past may be able to find alternatives to opioid pain relievers.

Since those with mental illness may be prone to painkiller addiction, it’s important to find the proper treatment that can alleviate pain symptoms without increasing the risk for developing a co-occurring disorder.

How to Treat Co-Occurring Disorder with Prescription Pain Addiction

Doctors, social workers, and other mental health professionals who specialize in both mental illness and addiction can assess a patient’s current state of health and address co-occurring disorders, if evident.

Other things to look for in a drug rehabilitation facility include opportunities to take part in diverse, alternative activities and various counseling modalities. This includes group therapy, individual therapy, social groups, art, music, and other holistic therapies. As with all substance addiction, this disease affects the family members of the patient in treatment as well, so ensuring that the family is involved provides the support needed for recovery and to heal the family.

If you or a loved one is addicted to painkillers, help is here.

Acceptance Recovery Center provides individuals with the integrated care needed to recover from prescription painkiller addiction through our progressive, effective, comprehensive treatment program.

Stop Prescription Painkiller Drug Dependency Now

About Dr. Greg Gale, MD

Dr. Greg Gale has been practicing and providing leadership in the field of psychiatry, substance use, and integrated care in the Phoenix metropolitan area for over 11 years. He joins us from his role as a national medical director overseeing behavioral health, substance use, and integrated care services for Humana Behavioral Health. Previously, he was CMO and VP of Clinical Services at Partners in Recovery, a not-for-profit behavioral health and substance use service organization, which operates five clinics throughout Maricopa County. Read more about Dr. Greg Gale, MD 

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